I mentioned briefly the other day, in my short article about Miracle at St. Anne, that I’m a fan of movies about the Second World War. As a child, one of the first movies I really fell in love with was The Great Escape, to the point where I used to carry around a baseball glove (probably the only kid in Northern Ireland to have one at the time) to feel more like Steve McQueen’s Captain Hilts. One curious thing about these ‘big’ war movies like The Great Escape, The Longest Day or The Battle of Britain is that they were almost all made in the 60s, big lavish productions with large international casts of stars. These have the benefit of hindsight, in addition to their huge budgets and resources, and frequently make an enjoyable kind of ‘boys own’ adventure story out of the historical events they reference.
It’s interesting, therefore, to look at the war movies that were actually made during the war itself. The British made a great number of very good pictures in the war years that dealt directly with the conflict swallowing the world. One benefit British cinema had was entering the war in 1939 gave them simply more time to make WWII pictures, but also there was such a wealth of talent in the country at the time, itching to make something topical. One such talent was the famous Noel Coward.
Noel Coward’s film In Which We Serve was released in September 1942. It was heavily influenced by the exploits of Lord Mountbatten, who was captain of the HMS Kelly until the Battle of Crete, when his ship was sunk. Similarly, the film follows Coward as Kinross, captain of the HMS Torrin, who is involved in situations similar to Mountbatten (in Norway, Dunkirk etc) until his ship is also sunk in the Battle of Crete.
The film is superbly shot, but the credit for direction has gotten a little muddled. At the start of the film, Noel Coward and none other than David Lean are credited as co-directors, with the emphasis on Coward. In reality, Lean most likely shot the vast majority of the film himself, as Coward did not know what he was doing behind the camera, and the film is much too pretty to be a fluke. However, Lean was not known outside of the industry (this was his first film as director) and so Coward got the majority of attention and credit at the time. The shots of the night time naval battles are marvellous to watch today, a fantastic combination of huge sets with miniatures that gives the impression of an absolute barrage, as the Torrin takes on a horde of troop landing ships and enemy destroyers. Though it’s not as visually adventurous as something like The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, it has it’s moments which remind you there is a great director near the camera.
The film was written by Noel Coward, which of course was more his strong point to say the least, and it utilises an interesting flashback format. The HMS Torrin is sunk right at the very beginning of the picture, and its men are flung into the water, bobbing helplessly as they are strafed by enemy planes. Captain Kinross slips below the surface and is peering, disorientated, through the murky water, possibly beginning to drown. Through this watery effect, the flashbacks start to come into focus, flashbacks to the history of the boat now lost, its part in the war, and the men who served on it.
The film is naturally propaganda, in fact doubly so. One, in that it attempts to be a rousing pro-British anti-Nazi recruitment film, and two, in that it reinforces a number of class stereotypes and opinions on social issues. But it’s the fact that it turns an eye socially that is part of the reason the film is so interesting. The whole picture could have been shot in the bridge of the ship, but instead it shows life below decks, an upstairs-downstairs view of life in the Royal Navy. The working class keep the ship running, the upper class command it what to do, and the middle class link the two, relaying the information.
One of the best sequences in the film shows a variety of Christmas celebrations across the country, as the crew get some time off back at home. John Mills’ crewman has a lively but humble Christmas, that of the Captain much more opulent but staid, but the film shows us how they are all joined in the same celebration, joined by a common culture and value set. Similarly, on the sea, even literally in the same boat, the ship can’t function without each man playing his part, whatever that may be. A young Richard Attenborough is berated for leaving his post in a battle, being the one not doing his duty to the up most, which endangers the whole boat.
Being that the film was made during the war, and was intended to promote the cause of the British forces, you might imagine they would want to keep negativity out of the picture, but the truth is quite the opposite. As mentioned, one of the crew men played by Richard Attenborough is a coward, who deserts his friends in a moment of weakness, during the stress of battle, and is then haunted by it. The family of another crew man are killed in the Blitz, the terrible impact of which on the ordinary civilian is shown a few times. The Torrin takes part in the evacuation of Dunkirk, after France fell to the enemy and the British forces were sent scrambling to get out. Finally, the ship at the heart of the story is sunk, hundreds of crewmen are killed, and The Battle of Crete was a total defeat, although a brave chapter in the history of Greece and New Zealand. Remember, this film was made in the months following these events, and was released only one year after they actually took place, when the Blitz on the UK continued and both Greece and France still lay occupied.
It’s this displaying of the facts, rather than shying away from them, that makes this movie’s approach so appealing. The picture admits to what’s awful, gives the traditional stiff upper lip and asks what is to be done about it. It’s the frankness about the losses which invokes the feeling. At one part in the film John Mills admires a bunch of soldiers who have just escaped Dunkirk, totally exhausted but willing to go again. By the end of the picture, we get a similar scene, only with the handful of survivors from the Torrin. The silent implication is that the audience is now to take the place of John Mills, admiring the navy boys and ready to replace those lost in the picture. To this end, the film is extremely effective.
Noel Coward was given an honorary prize for this picture at the 1943 Academy Awards, and then nominated for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay at the 1944 awards. A huge success in its day and very well regarded now, In Which We Serve is one of the best British films of the period, an absolute must for those with an interest in the war, British cinema or David Lean.
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